Out of the limelight

Albert Roussel.
Albert Roussel.

Right, let’s kick off with a test. I’ll give you a list of composers and we’ll see how many names you recognise. Here they are: Adalbert Gyrowetz, Johannes Matthias Sperger, Dmitry Bortniansky, Leopold Kozeluch, Etienne Ozi, Justin Heinrich Knecht, Artemy Vedel and Johann Georg Lickl.

Ring any bells? Probably not. But don’t feel inadequate, because if I gave that list to some professional musicians, I bet most of them wouldn’t recognise the names either. And just in case you’re wondering, those composers were born between the years 1750 and 1770 and were therefore contemporaries of Mozart and Haydn. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia lists nearly two hundred other long-forgotten composers who were born during the same period.

They may seem an obscure bunch today but in their time, some of them were celebrities in the musical world. Take the curiously-named Adalbert Gyrowetz for example. He spent much of his time travelling around Europe and wrote over thirty operas, sixty string quartets, sixty symphonies and about forty piano trios. He was born in the Czech city of Budìjovice, also known as Budweis. And yes, you guessed – the city is famous for Budweiser Bier which has been brewed there since the thirteenth century. Adalbert may well have had a few swigs himself to sustain him through those sixty symphonies.

It’s safe to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands more obscure composers than there are famous ones. Some of them faded into obscurity because their music wasn’t compelling enough to stand the test of time. Some fell out of fashion. Many are waiting to be rediscovered. One problem is that despite the hundreds of concert halls in the world, there simply aren’t enough to find performance opportunities for all these composers. And as concert promoters realize, people are more likely to attend a concert if there’s something familiar on offer. Unless they are rediscovered, Adalbert Gyrowetz and his contemporaries really don’t have much of a chance.

This week marks the birthdays of two composers who are not exactly obscure, but are currently a bit out of the limelight. They were both born on 5th April though eighty-five years apart.

Louis Spohr (1784-1859): Clarinet Concerto No 1 in C minor, Op 26. Aron Chiesa (clt), Brussels Philharmonic cond. Antonio Saiote (Duration: 20:37; Video: 720p HD)

Louis Spohr (SHPAW) was a forward-thinking individual as well as a respected violinist and conductor. Around 1820, he invented the violin chin-rest which today is standard equipment on violins and violas. As a conductor he was one of the first to use a baton. He also invented “rehearsal letters”, which are used to this day as reference points in every musical score and corresponding instrumental parts. This is why, at orchestral rehearsals, you’ll often hear the conductor announce for example, “Let’s go from Letter D”. Spohr wrote more violin concertos than any other composer of the time and he also composed four clarinet concertos.

This concerto was written during 1808 and 1809 after Spohr had performed Mozart’s clarinet concerto with the German virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt. Spohr was so impressed that he decided to write one himself. He evidently wanted to write a concerto free from the artificial bravura which was popular of the time. The work is in the usual three-movement format and contains some lovely melody writing. The slow movement is lyrical and reflective and leads into the light yet technically-demanding last movement. Stylistically the music is quiet conservative and unlike many classical works, the finale just fades away, instead of ending with the conventional loud chords.

Albert Roussel (1869-1937): Bacchus et Ariane Suite No 2, Op 43. Brussels Philharmonic cond. Stéphane Denève (Duration: 18:26; Video: 480p)

Roussel is one of the few composers who originally worked on board a ship for the French Navy, a duty which briefly brought him to Asia. In later years, many of his musical works reflected his fascination with distant or exotic places. He turned to music composing as an adult and became one of the most prominent French musicians of the interwar period.

This colourful work dates from 1930, when he was also working on his Third Symphony. You can clearly hear occasional hints of Ravel and Stravinsky but perhaps it’s unfair to make comparisons because Roussel has a distinctive musical voice of his own.

This eight-movement suite comes from his ballet of the same name and much of the music is infectious and dance-like. Sometimes it’s like listening to a film sound-track. For anyone unfamiliar with the colourful, exotic music of Roussel, this would be a splendid place to start. It’s a shame we hear so little of his music these days. If anyone deserves to be rediscovered, it is he.